Technology enabling our phones to act as mobile wallets will finally break through, says Louise Marston
We've been promised a wallet in our phones for years, but 2012 will be the year that it breaks through. The advent of this technology will mean more than just the convenience of a 'Jedi wave' of your phone to pay for coffee. From tracking your carbon footprint to smart posters, mobile payments are another piece of the infrastructure of the 'Internet of Things'.
NFC, or Near Field Communication, is a type of chip built into mobile phones to allow contactless payments. Although the NFC technology has been around for years, a major barrier to progress has been the lack of payment terminals.
The Transport for London Oystercard is a form of contactless payment, and you've probably seen contactless payment terminals in popular sandwich chains like Pret and EAT. The same terminals can be used for NFC mobile payments as these phones become available. The difference is that NFC will allow the phone to interact with the terminal using an app, making it much more flexible than the debit card or Oystercard systems.
The real promise of NFC goes beyond convenient payment for coffee, because every swipe of your phone becomes an opportunity to exchange data and trigger an application. You can use NFC to record your payments, and to exchange other information. Discounts, entry tickets and special offers could all be offered using this technology. Y Combinator start-up Tagstand makes NFC-enabled stickers and 'smart posters' to use in ads, trade-stands and other locations. These stickers allow you to tap your mobile phone on anything and do anything from sharing contact information, to sharing music, starting a multiplayer game or providing a discount coupon. MIT Media Lab produced a short 'day in the life' video to illustrate more possibilities, including a carbon footprint app that would use data from your purchases and transport choices.
There are already a few phone handsets that support NFC, but many more will be launched in 2012. The Nexus S is the first mainstream handset that already has NFC built in, but Nokia, Blackberry and Samsung are launching NFC phones soon and the Apple rumour mill suggests that next year's iPhone will have mobile payments. (NFC world has an exhaustive list of handsets).
Ultimately, NFC is another example of a technology that will connect together the 'Internet of Things'. Along with RFID and GPS, it provides another way for us to use our phones as a window into a world of data from connected devices and printed objects, making a seamless link between our data and the increasingly data-driven world around us.